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The fuel of fear

The ‘fearless creative’ is a myth. Or a fraud
It starts, with each new brief, at the level of generalised anxiety: ‘Will I run dry this time?’
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

I have never met a creative person who wasn’t fearful. Some show it, some hide it, but invariably what you are working with is a walking repository of doubt. It starts, with each new brief, at the level of generalised anxiety: “Will I run dry this time?”

Creative teams who gather their awards around them aren’t doing it to intimidate rivals, or as reassurance to passing clients, in the way that lawyers or dentists display their certificates of qualification; they do it for themselves, as a reminder that they are, or at least once were, possessed of an original mind.

That fear passes once the first promising idea takes shape – but only to be subsumed by another: “Has it been done?” In advertising especially, the canon is vast and memories are long. The dread is that the work will get researched, approved and lovingly crafted, only for someone to casually observe: “But isn’t that just like that Colombian spot that got a One Show Silver in ’95?”

If it definitely hasn’t been done, there comes the creeping suspicion that maybe there’s a good reason for that. Perhaps the idea is just too small – or, worse, too ludicrously grandiose for the modest, quotidian brand that’s meant to bear its weight. In any Top 10 of creative fears, ridicule is right up there with journeyman status in contending for the number-one spot.

The overnight test – and no self-respecting creative will duck it – brings a poignant refrain to the ballad of emotional frailty: “Will I still love you tomorrow?” Letting go of something that flattered beyond its depth might be the only sane course, but it’s still going to hurt.

Research brings its own bag of terrors. “Will the idea get killed?” That’s a rage-inducing prospect, for sure, but here’s one that’s unspeakably worse: “Will it merely get maimed, and leave me to prop it up in its ghastly feebleness, and have my name forever fused with its stench of inner decay?” Death in a ditch is always to be preferred to life in intensive care.

If things go well and it’s going to get made as envisaged, the doubts migrate to craft skills. Will they be up to the task? Is that art-direction taste, that writing flair, that directorial instinct fit to finesse the raw-hewn idea?

Creative teams have justly learned to dread the moment when they realise their Big One was brought low not by clients, nor account people, nor research, nor budgets, nor regulations, but by their own insipid transformation from approved concept to finished article.

But what if – miracles happen – everything runs to plan: brilliant idea, enhanced by research, beautifully made, run in the right places, playing off the right cultural context? What’s to be afraid of now?

Jurors, that’s what. “Will they see it at Cannes and D&AD for the breathtakingly original, sharply defined, genuine commercial Gold that it is, or will they get seduced again by some piece of faux-charity make-believe that only ran once in that form?”

As a marketer, you might find yourself wondering how great work ever emerges in spite of all these fears. It doesn’t: it emerges because of them. Those cumulative notches of angst make for a spectacularly high bar.

Creative people who know how it feels to own the wretchedness induced by the tepid, the faintly derivative, the undercooked, the overblown, the poorly finished, the never-better-than-Bronze will fire off every synapse of imagination, strain every fibre of resolve, to ensure they produce the opposite.

Yes, fear can paralyse – and, in isolated moments, it does. But it can also galvanise, and in the great sweep of the creative adventure, that is its salient role. Fear is fuel.

But what if you find yourself working with a creative lead who doesn’t fit the archetype? What if your next campaign is in the hands of someone who oozes creative self-belief?

There are two possibilities here. The first is that their apparent confidence is a mask, to respectfully conceal from the paying customer the professional unease that lurks beneath – in the way that an airline captain might maintain the voice of calm even through a cockpit alert.

The second is that the self-belief is real, the confidence genuine, and the smiling certainties earnestly felt. In which case, be afraid, be very afraid.

Creative torment

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”
TS Eliot

“I’m not afraid of failing, but I am afraid of doing bad work.”
Steven Bochco, writer and originator, Hill Street Blues

“I never sit down to write an advertisement without thinking THIS TIME I AM GOING TO FAIL.”
David Ogilvy

“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it.”
John Steinbeck

“The unpredictability is what makes what we do in advertising so exciting. You literally don’t know where you are going to end up.”
Sir John Hegarty

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”
Robert Hughes, art critic

“I’ve learnt that it is far easier to write a speech about good advertising than it is to write a good ad.”
Leo Burnett